the "Known But to God" grave markers at the American Cemetary in Normandy.

the "Known But to God" grave markers at the American Cemetary in Normandy.

I’ve heard the complaint that Whitman’s prose from the war period is a bit dry.  While it may not be the most exciting and dynamic prose I’ve ever read, the historical presence of his work seems irreplaceable.  I’m especially interested in this period of Whitman’s poetry and prose since I spend I significant amount of time on Civil Poetry in my American Studies class. 

There are two subjects that I noticed throughout that I’d like to address here.

1. The Unknown/Unnamed Soldier

“Unnamed, unknown, remain, and still remain, the bravest soldiers” (748)

After this line, Whitman imagines and quickly details the battle seen where the unknown soldier receives his deadly shot.  At last… “the Bravest Soldier crumbles in mother earth, unburied and unknown” (748).

Whitman poses a question at the beginning of this entry, “Of scenes like these, I say, who writes-whoe’er can write the story?”   When I think of all of the casualities of the Civil War – and their distance from the “writers” of history, I  wonder who did write the story of the Civil War – and how accurate it was. 

In one entry, Whitman discusses how the “Real War” will not be written.  Though he muses that this may actually be a good thing (debatable, I think), it’s true.  The realities of the war were most experienced by those who died on the battlefield and many of them don’t have the ability to tell their history or be a definitive part of it due to their anonymity in death. 

The “unknown” soldier is something Whitman seems to use, at least in part, to unite the Union and Confederate soldiers. 

“Everywhere among these countless graves-everywhere in the many soldier Cemetaries of the Nation…we see on monuments and gravestones, singly or in masses, to thousand or tens of thousands, the significant word Unknown” (801).

They’re not Union or Confederate soldiers, but men. 

Whitman’s discussion here reminds me of two other Civil War poems: “Like Brothers We Meet” by George Moses Horton and “The Unknown Grave” by Henry Timrod.

2. Dying Alone

This subject is an extension of the previous, as these unnamed soldiers die without family or friends at their sides.  It is likely that his comrades were not even present, as death is quick in battle and the casualties must be left behind in order to advance. 

I wonder to what extent the humanity Whitman expresses in “Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night” (438-9) of one soldier (possibly a father) burying another was a reality on the battlefield or a consolation for him or his readers.  At some points in Whitman’s war musings he mentions the man who remained on the battlefield, wounded, for fifty hours.  In this entry he talks about how often soldiers are left on the battlefield for hours – left to their “fates”.

This repeatedly addressed subject – often only a brief mention of someone dying in a hospital without family or acquaintance – made me wonder if this is where Whitman’s anxiety about death – seen in much of his late poetry – begins.  Dying with family and friends around is a privilege that becomes yet another casualty of war. 

I think Whitman sometimes used his poetry (and perhaps his prose) to give these men a history, their war a history the best way he could.  “The Wound-Dresser” chronicles some of his experience in the hospitals, and in a sense, recalls those things that were “so soon forgotten”:

But in silence, in dreams’ projections,

While the world of gain and appearance and mirth goes on,

So soon what is over forgotten and waves wash the imprints off the sand,

With hinged knees returning I enter the doors, (while for you up there,

Whoever you are, follow without noise and be of strong heart.)


And what of all of this might we not say about the casualties of war today?